WE WERE BORN TO TRAVEL
During our slow evolution from ape-like creatures to human-like creatures, we also evolved our way of relating to our environment. Animals take what food they can get when they can get it, whether that food is primarily plant-based (herbivores, which tend to be prey to larger animals), or animal-based (carnivores, which tend to be hunters of smaller animals), or, like us until recently, a combination of the two (omnivores).
Another name for omnivore is hunter-gatherer, and for the first few million years of our existence hunting and gathering was how we got our food. Like other animals in our neighborhood the search for food was our major preoccupation; little time or energy was left over for anything else. Indeed, many tribes in remote parts of the planet still live that way – constantly on the move in search of whatever food happens to be plentiful depending on the weather, time of year, proximity to other tribes, proximity to animal migrations, etc. Sometimes we’d ‘hit the jackpot’ with a kill of a large animal or locate a tree full of ripe fruit or a patch of ripe grain, but with no knowledge of food preservation or means of transporting stored food, there was nothing for it but to have a feast, knowing that at any time it could be followed by famine. We felt a kinship with our animal brothers and sisters, we all lived in the moment.
Constant travel meant traveling light, especially when you had only what you carried with you – no wheeled carts or domestic animals. People who happened to live in an environment rich in food tended to settle in one place for awhile, until the supply of edible plants and/or game was exhausted, then move on. Those not so fortunate had to keep constantly on the move. Either way the only things you carried with you were implements used to get and process food. Shelter and clothing were something you made on the spot, or found (like a cave).
At some point we began to notice that some sticks were harder, some stones sharper, some foods were better for us, some gadgets made life easier, fire could be ‘created’, food could be dried, meat could be smoked, animal skins could be made into clothes, goods that were more plentiful in one place could be traded for goods that were more plentiful in another place; we didn’t have to go there to get them – all these innovations meant less travel was needed, making it worthwhile building better shelters. We began ‘scaling up’ our social organizations from extended families to tribes to clans to villages. At this point we’re no longer millions of years in our past, but mere tens of thousands.
WE LEARN TO CONTROL ANIMALS AND PLANTS
THE MARCH OF ‘CIVILIZATION’
The ‘standard’ narrative of the ‘march of civilization’ says that it began with the development of farming, which coincided with the domestication of animals, such as dogs, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle, and plants such as wheat, peas, olives, rice, bananas, sugar, millet, and sesame, which provided a stable source of food, making constant travel unnecessary. This led to the concept of real estate (private or corporate property with defined boundaries), which enabled irrigation, the building of cities, increased trade, and the development of states and empires.
However, the ‘standard’ narrative has been propounded by those who were the beneficiaries of ‘civilization’. It tends to neglect the influences of an innovation I consider equally important to the development of agriculture – a development that took the domestication of animals in a different direction from agriculture and enabled it to compete with agriculture for control of land over thousands of years. The development was pastoral nomadism.
Pastoral nomads retained the human habit of traveling in search of food. However, rather than search for food for themselves, they searched for food for their newly-domesticated animals. The animals – their meat and milk – were their food, so they always had their food with them. The animals could also serve as beasts of burden, so people could live in larger, heavier shelters, pack extra food, cooking gear, clothing, etc, that the animals could carry. Eventually, people learned that horses could be ridden, an event that transformed pastoral nomadism, multiplying its influence in ways felt to this day.
Not all nomadic people who herd animals are true nomads. People like shepherds who take their flocks to summer pasture for a period of weeks, later to return home, in a yearly cycle for instance, are not like nomads. Pastoral nomads carry their home and all other belongings with them. Their only real assets are their animals. Political boundaries mean nothing – or at least they used to before lines on maps became enforced by militaries.
A major achievement of pastoral nomadism was their consolidation of languages. By trading, traveling and conquering in all directions, they influenced the languages of their peers – giving several language groups a base similar to that of the nomads, which led to the Indo-European language group – the group with the largest number of speakers on the planet.
Defense of property and security have frequently caused major problems due to conflict between farmers and nomads who live in close contact with one another. The farmer must defend his fields or plantations because he depends for his livelihood on them. The nomad is conditioned by his way of life not to respect such interests. He does not value such fixed resources because he himself does without them. He values his animals. He is not even very interested in conserving pastures.
Whenever it began, a major result of the development of a people-horse relationship was that it gave an advantage to nomads over their agricultural-based city-dwelling peers. Horse riders could move faster, farther than walkers; they had a prestigious mode of transport, lending authority to their culture. They developed the most formidable fighting machines, first the chariot-rider-archer (Due to a scarcity of wood in the grasslands, nomads invented the spoked wheel), later the horseback-rider-archer, (nomads also invented the stirrup) which led to their conquering vast territories in all directions. An early example of the military advantage of horses over infantry was the Scythians.
Other examples of pastoral-nomad warriors were the Huns, Bulgars, Mongols and Turks. Most (except the Mongols) were ‘chased’ into Europe by other, stronger tribes expanding from eastern to western Asia.
ANATOLIA BECOMES TURKEY
In the late 1000’s it was the turn of the Seljuks, a Turkic tribe, to be the invaders from the East. Pressured by pastoral nomads from further east, Seljuk scouts determined that Anatolia would make a defensible grassland “home” for their herds. Due to the nomad’s perception of buildings as obstructions to their grazing lands, the Turks’ destruction of cities and other infrastructure led to the transformation of Antaolia from cropland to pasture.
HOW DO NOMADS GOVERN AGRICULTURALISTS AND CITY DWELLERS?
Having conquered a territory, how do nomads, whose heritage has little respect for buildings, infrastructure, literacy, or other trappings of so-called civilization, govern? Surprisingly, (considering their religion, Islam, was also founded within the framework of another nomadic culture, the Bedouin of Arabia), they often governed with a higher degree of toleration for other cultures than was present in so-called Christian nations of the same era. Christians and Jews were considered “People of the Book”, (because the Koran considers Abraham and Moses foundational prophets for all three religions), so they were exempt from certain taxes and restrictions placed on other conquered peoples. This came in handy when Spanish Jews, who had been held in high esteem in Islamic Moorish Spain, were offered three choices when Christians reconquered in 1492 – 1. Convert to Christianity, 2. Leave, or 3. Die. Most chose to leave for land controlled by the Ottoman Turks.
Generally the Turks couldn’t be bothered with the administrative details of government so long as they produced a steady stream of taxes and soldiers, so they farmed out those duties to the highest bidder, regardless of religion. Likewise legal disputes between, say, two Christians, or Christian and Jew, were handled within those communities, often by religious leaders. This relative tolerance came to haunt the Ottomans. When Western ideas of self-rule began to seep into Ottoman-controlled lands in the 1800’s, it was often religious leaders who were at the forefront of the independence movements.
The Ottoman Turk’s unsuccessful siege of Vienna 1683 was the high water mark of nomadic-pastoral-based militarism. Innovaton-based Europe had begun to out-perform innovation-averse Islam. Once the gun and cannon tipped the balance of power away from horse-based cavalry, pastoral nomads were no longer the foundation of a powerful military. The continual growth of cities, manufacturing, and mechanized agriculture pushed nomads onto ever more marginal lands. Today, nomads are no longer a threat, and often have low status. This is reflected in the excerpt below from an article that argues nomads deserve respect because they’re self-sufficient, and make use of land no one else wants. A far cry from the time they were the most innovative and feared people on the planet.
Pastoral nomadism is a way of life that has evolved in regions too dry, too elevated, or too steep for agriculture. The nomad makes use of land that might otherwise be neglected. He moves regularly with his flocks or herds according to seasonal variations in climate. His animals, through their meat or their milk, provide him with a substantial part of his diet. He builds no permanent dwelling, His life is hard. He has very few material possessions as he is constantly on the move. He eats simple food. Often milk alone is his staple, for meat is too great a luxury since his animals represent his capital. To use them for meat is to destroy his livelihood. He must manage when water fails or if his flock or herd contracts an epidemic… It can be argued that many nomadic areas, especially areas where there are no natural resources, are unsuitable for any activity other than pastoral nomadism. Peoples of the Earth, volume 15, p,8. ©1973 by Europa Verlag.